Are Autonomous Vehicles Becoming the Ultimate Social Distancing Tool?

Are Autonomous Vehicles Becoming the Ultimate Social Distancing Tool?
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BY:
Chris Moulder, CPCU, ARM

Senior Vice President/Broker

May 14, 2020

Social distancing is intended to reduce the total number of people who become infected with COVID-19, by slowing its spread. As a result, the practice has helped to save countless lives. But what about situations where social distancing isn’t possible or isn’t safe enough? Today, as businesses, healthcare institutions and government look for innovative ways to deliver essential services while keeping workers and the public safe from the virus, autonomous vehicles are being pressed into service as a vital social distancing tool.

Reducing Human Exposure While Performing Essential Services        
Since their development, self-driving cars have been more of a novelty than a necessity. But today, as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, autonomous vehicles are playing a critical role in helping keep people safe. Because these vehicles don’t require a driver, they offer a way to increase social distancing efforts by minimizing person-to-person contact. Uniquely suited for the job, autonomous vehicles are being used for a number of tasks — everything from delivering essentials to consumers in heavily infected areas to transporting testing and medical supplies to healthcare facilities and laboratories.

For the first time ever in the U.S., the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, in cooperation with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, is using self-driving electric vehicles to transport COVID-19 test samples. Currently, four vehicles travel on a loop between public drive-through test sites and the clinic’s laboratory. These shuttles are also being used to deliver vital medical supplies to and from the clinic. Using this type of cutting-edge autonomous vehicle technology protects workers from exposure to COVID-19 while freeing up staff time that can be dedicated to the direct care of patients.

By operating in a controlled environment and on established routes, self-driving cars essentially eliminate the risk of exposing a human driver to COVID-19, as well as prevent the spread of the virus to those on the receiving end. In addition to automated driving to designated locations, the shuttles are programmed to stop and automatically open and then close their doors, minimizing the need for physical contact with the vehicle. Nuro, a startup manufacturer of self-driving vehicles, is also increasing its transportation efforts for delivering medical supplies to temporary coronavirus facilities in Sacramento and San Mateo counties in California.

Contactless deliveries of food and other vital items via autonomous vehicles are also ramping up across the country. In Ann Arbor, for example, three-wheeled, battery-powered robots are traveling along bike lanes and making contactless food deliveries to consumers who are practicing social distancing or self-quarantining where contact with others isn’t safe. The vehicles, designed with UV sterilizing lights in the food storage areas, safely deliver groceries and meals while quelling concerns recipients might have regarding the spread of COVID-19.

The Hyundai-Aptiv Driving Joint Venture, a collaboration between Hyundai and Aptiv to develop autonomous vehicle technologies, is using driverless vehicles in the Las Vegas area to deliver groceries and meals to families. In partnership with the nonprofit organization Delivering with Dignity, fully automated vehicles are supporting the program that provides meals to vulnerable families at risk of contracting COVID-19. The Hyundai-Aptiv Driving Joint Venture is only the latest autonomous vehicle company to redeploy its cars for delivery amid the pandemic. Since mid-April, the San Francisco-Marin County Food Bank and San Francisco New Deal have utilized Cruise self-driving vehicles to distribute food to seniors in need and to local emergency shelters.

The Future of Autonomous Mobility Services
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how unprepared we were as a society to access basic needs and services in a crisis in a safe and contactless manner. Experts weighing in on the topic believe that if autonomous mobility services had been more readily available for use prior to the pandemic, it is more likely that supply chains for critical equipment, medical supplies and sanitation products may not have been so limited, and there would have been less of a risk to healthcare workers in transporting patients.

Clearly, the COVID-19 pandemic has renewed — and even accelerated — interest in autonomous vehicles. So much so, in fact, that the pandemic is being described as a wake-up call for manufacturers in the transportation industry to increase their core product offerings to include autonomous vehicle systems for grocery and parcel deliveries, as well as germ-free transport for consumers who must avoid contact with others for medical reasons that aren’t related to COVID-19.

The future of transportation is rapidly changing as the pandemic has many of us reexamining personal transportation options to maximize social distancing while remaining able to safely access almost anything we want and need. And while we can’t predict when we will come out of the pandemic, it is likely that the transportation industry will be in a stronger position to provide even more options for a wide range of contactless mobility services at a time when it is most critical.

About Worldwide Facilities LLC
Risks associated with the transportation industry often require specific coverage solutions. At Worldwide Facilities, we have a deep understanding of the unique operations and needs of the commercial auto transportation industry and are helping brokers create a customized risk management solution for the clients they serve. For more information, contact Chris Moulder at cmoulder@wwfi.com.

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